If a member of the Orange County public defender's office could send an employee to replace comedian Ricky Gervais as host of the Golden Globe Awards ceremony, it would be the often charming and humorous Michael Hill.
But the veteran attorney is presently engaged in a more difficult task than entertaining millions of couch potatoes around the planet in a live TV broadcast that will determine whether Meryl Streep captures another award.
Nanette Ann Packard—Hill's notorious, excessively boob-jobbed client—is also a thespian, of sorts. Every great actor, whether in a theater or a courtroom, requires an audience eager to suspend reality: Streep is Margaret Thatcher; Leonardo DiCaprio is J. Edgar Hoover; and Packard is Marilyn Monroe, a misunderstood, voluptuous, frisky bedmate consumed by greed but devoid of homicidal intentions.
Back in reality, Packard and Hill have a monumental problem: the bullet-riddled corpse of William McLaughlin. The 55-year-old was an ultra-wealthy Newport Beach inventor and businessman who made the asset-less Packard his live-in girlfriend and, through his will, a millionaire the instant he died in a hail of gunfire in his kitchen on Dec. 15, 1994. At the time of his death, McLaughlin didn't know Packard was embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from him, as well as brazenly cheating on him with younger men she picked up at Orange County's most exclusive gym.
Given prosecutor Matt Murphy's substantial circumstantial evidence otherwise, Hill must convince an audience of 12 jurors that Packard is a shameless, gold-digging slut, liar and thief, but not a shameless, gold-digging slut, liar, thief and murderer.
Five months ago, a jury convicted one of Packard's 1994 lovers, Eric Naposki—a former fifth-rate NFL linebacker with the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts—of ambushing McLaughlin and firing six, lethal hollow-tip bullets into the ex-Marine's torso before fleeing to his job as a nightclub bouncer 135 feet away. Someone supplied Naposki, who spent much of the day of the murder with Packard, two keys to the property before the killing. In the aftermath, Naposki and Packard behaved as if they'd just won the lottery. They spent the dead man's money on expensive Christmas presents for each other, stole his Cadillac, treated the victim's bereaving family with contempt and partied luxuriously in San Francisco. Apparently unable to wait for a $1 million life-insurance-policy payout, they even house-shopped together in an exclusive, gated community in Irvine.
Fast-forward to their 2009 cold-case arrests. Packard and Naposki, who had romantically parted years earlier, declared themselves patsies of incompetent Newport Beach police detectives. Defense lawyers claimed the real killer was McLaughlin's handicapped son, an unhappy McLaughlin business partner, Mexican drug-cartel bosses, a mysterious hit man or, despite the fact that nothing valuable was stolen, a lethal burglar. That chorus ended at Naposki's trial when Angelo MacDonald, one of his New York lawyers, described Packard as a slut, "con woman" and killer who duped the supposedly noble if dimwitted ex-professional athlete. After a lengthy trial, a jury rejected MacDonald's argument. Naposki will be sentenced to a California prison in the coming months.
Now with her own fate pending, Packard is returning the favor. The defense wants jurors to believe there was one villain, Naposki, who outsmarted Packard in a play for McLaughlin's estimated $55 million fortune. "[Naposki] wanted access to the money," Hill told the jury in his Jan. 9 opening statement. "He did [the murder] on his own."
Poor Hill. Through no fault of his own, he's playing a lousy poker hand while acting as though he's holding four aces. Here's the killer fact: Without Packard's participation in the crime, Naposki wouldn't have guaranteed access to the dead man's money. Hill plans to muddy that point by arguing that Naposki killed McLaughlin in a jealous rage "to eliminate the competition." His strategy includes ready acknowledgment of his client's serious character flaws, including that she was willing to "tell lie after lie after lie after lie after lie" and sleep with an enormous list of men to fund a wealthy lifestyle.
"Nanette places a great deal of importance in money," her lawyer told jurors. "She knows her looks can get her far."
Hill hopes he can convert an ugly negative into a positive by arguing that Packard's lust for money is the "biggest reason" why it's "not logical" she would have been involved in McLaughlin's murder.
"She wants a rich man to take care of her," said Hill. "Eric Naposki had none [money]. He was a deadbeat dad. She would never, ever leave Bill McLaughlin for someone with no money—never, ever. . . . Money is the driving force behind her. Nanette liked the high life. . . . If you are motivated by money, you aren't going to kill the golden goose to be with the pauper. . . . She had the perfect life."
Seated nearby, prosecutor Murphy listened and scribbled notes but didn't seem worried. He told the jury in his opening statement he has "every confidence" that while they'll see Hill as "an excellent attorney," they'll also hold Packard responsible for McLaughlin's murder.
"I'm looking forward to that day," he said.
The victim's daughters have waited 17 years for justice. They were rightfully offended in the last trial by the attacks on their brother, an avid surfer who died in a swimming accident after the murder. This case should be easier.
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Naposki's multimember, testosterone-charged legal team refused to concede even the obvious and, in the process, alienated a jury. Hill pledged a different strategy. He told jurors he'll likely agree with much of the prosecutor's asserted facts, but at the trial's conclusion, he plans to offer a "different interpretation" that points to Packard's innocence.
Said Hill, "Nanette is a cheater and a thief, but not a killer."
This column appeared in print as "Is Nanette Packard Ready for Her Close-Up? The criminal defendant hopes to convince a jury she's a greedy slut—but not a murderer."